31st Keith Harbour Address by Switchboard CEO Joe Ball
14 Nov 2023
The 31st annual Keith Harbour Address was delivered by Switchboard Victoria CEO Joe Ball at Thorne Harbour Health's Positive Living Centre on Sunday 12 November 2023.
People still call Switchboard – 5 years after the postal service on marriage equality. This shows how traumatising this experience can be and how it takes a long time to move on from things. This is a reminder to renew our commitment to First Nations rights and the healing process we now must go on.
It is a great honour to have been asked to give this address to you today. Especially in this year of all years, it being the 40th anniversary of the founding of Thorne Harbour Health (THH) and commemorating 40 years of fighting of AIDS.
In giving this address I also honour the memory of Thorne Harbour Health founder and AIDS activist Keith Harbour.
And that is where I want to anchor today’s talk – in honouring. And what it means and could mean to honour legacies of activism.
Perhaps we honour activists most, when we ensure that the things they achieved and the lessons that they taught us are not lost, but instead they are protected and carried forward into the new struggles.
And of course, our Victorian AIDS activists, including Keith, gave us Thorne Harbour Health, which is not only a centre today for gay men’s health and people living with HIV/AIDS, but is now today, more than ever a home for the whole LGBTIQ+ communities and amongst many things that Thorne Harbour remarkably does, it also runs Australia’s first and only community-controlled trans health clinic, Equinox.
As a trans person, I see Equinox, as much a gift from the early AIDS activists, as it is from the broader more recent LGBTIQA+ generations who followed. For without the very bricks and mortar of this organisation and the established clinical practice, a clinic like Equinox would not have been possible in 2016.
The strength of inheriting the legacies of activism is that we can build on each other struggles and ideas. In the case of trans health, it is inextricably entwined with a bodily autonomy movement that was started by the women’s liberation movement in the 60s, adopted by the Gay Liberation Movement in the 70s, central to AIDS activists in the 80s and now being actively fought for in the battle for trans rights now.
Importantly, AIDS activists taught us all that when it comes to healthcare and having control over our treatments and lives - they taught us not only how to fight but importantly, how to win!
When I was 19, I knew I was transgender, I called the Queensland AIDS Council (QuAC), I remember them doing some kind of screening to see if I was in the right place, they asked me, why do you want to come in? I said, “I am having a gender identity crisis”, They said yep, of course and booked me in. The year was 1999. Only eight years after decriminalisation in Queensland.
I had recently watched the movie, Boys Don’t Cry, the true story of trans man Brandon Tina.
I had learnt from that movie, from the main character of Brandon, that there were people like me and there was a term for what we were experiencing – ‘Gender Identity Crisis’. Not a term we use anymore. But those words at that time were a bridge from confusion to confirmation. Affirmation and celebration were decades away for me.
If those words in that move were a bridge at that time, then QuAC was a lifeboat that stopped me from drowning.
21 years later I would use the transgender informed consent model of care, outlined in the Protocols for the Initiation of Hormone Therapy for Trans and Gender Diverse Patients developed by Thorne Harbour Health through the Equinox program.
Two organisations, built by AIDS Activism , QuAC and Thorne Harbour Health, coupled with the advocacy of trans people in and outside these organisations bookends my own gender affirmation journey and for all involved I will be eternally gratefully, and I honour all those involved by living a life that they all fought for – one where I have had the right to get support, and when the time came, having the right to make an informed choice.
If you know the story of Brandon Tina, you also know that aside from learning from the movie that I could change my name, bind your chest and get a pathologizing medical diagnosis, is that as a trans man, you could be raped, then have that rape ignored by the police because of transphobia and then soon after be killed. Suffice to say it wasn’t a positive way to learn about your identity and although the movie was ground-breaking, Boys Don’t Cry was certainly a trans masculine version of Philadelphia. No one should discover who they are through such brutal tales.
I must admit it is such a relief to see such far more diverse and positive representations of trans people are now, including in our very own Melbourne Queer Film Festival that is on right now. With this year’s program perhaps having the most ever trans and gender diverse content.
And this brings me to another thing AIDS activism taught me, and that is the role of visibility and being represented as more than our deaths. And importantly how we can both mourn the dead whilst all at once fight like hell for the living.
At Switchboard we proudly operate a dedicated program aimed at preventing suicide within the LGBTIQA+ community. For far too long, suicide has been shrouded in a dangerous veil of silence, compelling us to avoid discussing it. In 2018 the suicide prevention sector launched a campaign called We Can Talk to debunk the unhelpful myth that talking about suicide causes suicide. Yet, we already knew this lesson, didn’t we? AIDS activist taught us that silence = death.
We can’t address what is killing us unless we can name it. Like in the case of AIDS, we must engage in an open dialogue about the drivers of suicide, otherwise, those most in need will face stigma, isolation and we won’t get the funding for the clinical and peer health responses we need. In addition to this – in the silence we obscure the reality, that we are not our deaths, that we are not just people who succumb to despair; we are people who can and profoundly wish to thrive.
Today at Switchboard we have a Remembering Rainbow. This is a wooden structure, painted silver and you can embroider a ribbon on with the name of a LGBTIQA+ person you have lost to suicide, and then tie that ribbon onto the Rainbow. With each ribbon the rainbow becomes more colourful, more of a Rainbow, because of course, it is the lives lived that makes the Rainbow.
If this sounds like a familiar practice, it should, because the inspiration for our Remembering Rainbow was from the AIDS quilts.
Always building on the shoulders of. Always honouring those who came before us and always seeking to honour the past through the struggles anew.
However, we are not alone in using the past for inspiration. The far right, the Christian nationalists and the new anti-trans activists are bringing forth the same arguments against trans people they used against gays and lesbians in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and even still today.
Today trans people are labelled paedophiles, and we are told we trying to convert children. They tell us trans is a new thing, or a sickness, not part of organised traditional faith, that we are sick or have poor mental health issues. They say it is our fault and because of our lifestyles. They even say our bodies are too dangerous to participate in sport. They say we shouldn’t work with children, or be spoken about in schools, let alone raise our own.
I don’t need to tell a single person in this room where we have heard each and every one of these arguments before.
They also say that our healthcare is experimental, even though gender affirmation care in the form of hormone replacement treatment has been around since the 1970’s and the first transgender surgery took place in Berlin in 1931.
And these arguments, once hurled on the daily at gays and lesbians and people living with AIDS failed, and they must fail again, not only because trans people deserve to thrive, but also because we are their trojan horse. They are focusing their attention most keenly on trans women and medical and therapeutic professionals who support trans people today, but they are coming for the whole trans LGBTIQA+ communities. Attacking our services and leaders. As the adage goes – they come for one today and tomorrow they come for you. Of course, let them not come for anyone, let them not destroy our founding activist legacy - the legacy of a united movement that rallied together when one part of our community needed us the most.
In the now famous stories of how AIDS activism was coalition politics of those living with, health care professionals, lesbians and allies, let us all rally together in the same way now for trans people.
This is not to say that there is still not much more to be done everywhere we look in our communities and we need to do all the things, and AIDS is not over. Don’t get me wrong.
But what I am saying is that there is a terrible storm already on our shores where trans people are under attack, where our very right to health care and representation is on the line and we too can’t win this fight without a coalition.
Unlike our AIDS activist trailblazers, we have the benefit of their trail to follow and that is:
- That we need to build a broad movement to support us.
- We need to turn this issue into one with bipartisan support, where trans gender is no longer a political football but a life affirming healthcare response.
- We need to answer back to disinformation and be in control of our bodies and lives through telling our own stories – or as Keith put it “talk with us, not about us.”
From an early age I remember one of my aunt’s constant refrains - you can never change another person; you can only change yourself. I have often wondered what particular lesson or lessons in life she learnt this from. I think I have concluded, at least for now, that she is partially right.
During the marriage equality campaign, lead campaigners told us that the win would come from a million quiet conversations, preferably over a cup of tea. Australian marriage equality website still states:
That we won yes “because of millions of Australians who reached out to our own families, neighbourhoods, organisations – to stand up for equality, stand by our loved ones and share why equality was so important”.
My mum voted yes, but I think that it wasn’t because I had changed her mind through a well-crafted timely conversation. It’s rather that by the time the postal survey was delivered to her mailbox and was later sitting unopened on her side bench, with two blank boxes waiting for one to be ticked, the world had already changed around her.
Although I don’t discredit that her love for me played a significant part in shifting her views towards acceptance and by that, I mean accepting the idea that two same sex people should have the right to get married in Australia.
I do genuinely believe it was a gravitational move of a million changes convalescing to transform her world, including gay teachers at her workplace, gay characters on TV shows she liked, same sex couples in advertising, maybe even Penny Wong. Which of course is the collective action of activists, law reformers, artists and individuals who have made the world anew not by a million single conversations around one issue, but by taking their struggle for their lives everywhere they went and making a million rainbow inroads into every institution, neighbourhood, and community.
Of course, we still needed a Yes campaign in 2017 to largely combat the No, but the win of Yes has its origins in 50+ years of struggle.
My mum called me to confirm she had voted yes, in fact she didn’t leave the letter to languish on the sideboard, she got it sorted like a final notice bill, quickly settled, account closed.
The world around her has changed, my mum twenty years earlier disgusted by her daughter’s sexuality - because as she said, “your parts don’t fit together” voted YES and finally accepted that in fact two same ends of the power connectors are able to click together.
The marriage equality No campaign promised us a steep slippery slope of avalanching transgender rights if people voted Yes.
There is evidence of this in some states and territories, but it’s more like the snow melting after the frost than an avalanche, with the more egregious discriminations being remedied. Birth certificate reform is the exemplar and, now transgender people are able to change their genders without sterilising surgeries in every Australian state accept for NSW and WA.
Something I personally celebrated this year when Queensland changed the law and I am very pleased to say that, as someone who was born in Queensland, I am no longer required to have a forced hysterectomy to change my gender – something I am very much looking forward to doing when the legislation becomes actualised in 2024.
For trans rights, easily a generation or three behind gay rights, we too need now to change the world. Because as my aunt explained you can’t change another person, but what marriage equality showed us, is that you can change the world around them.
The once disappointing daughter is now the far more disappointing transgender son. My mum didn’t slip on the slippery slope from marriage equality to trans liberation. Hardly anyone did.
So as I play my part to collectively change the world around my mum and the thousands of parents who don’t accept their transgender children, I know that this time, I might not be able to change the world in time for my mum to accept me.
However, we are always building and protecting what we have achieved and then building again, I have what many other trans people never had in their lifetimes, and I hope I can achieve the same for those who come after me.
All this being said – I am so lucky to be living in this time and place – when it is the easiest it has ever been to be transgender in the country AND I am very fortunate. I am able every day to work in a workplace and have colleagues who completely accept me for who I am. Something not many trans people can say.
I was also able to transition, while leading an organisation. A lot of trans people feel forced out of their jobs and need to change their careers to transition.
And although sometimes it felt far more public than I ever wanted it to be, I was able to transition publicly in leadership and be safe.
Amusingly I can track my whole medical transition in the social media posts for Switchboard. Equally I can track my changes in my voice over radio interviews – from one guest podcast appearance on Well Well Well to the next. I’m also extremely fortunate to have a wonderful partner.
But my safety is not by chance, I have inherited the legacy of others’ activism, and I am held by a community of peers.
This the 40th anniversary of THH this year and the ongoing fight against AIDS serves as a testament to the indomitable spirit of activism and community.
It is essential we remember pioneers like Keith Harbour and all the unsung volunteers and workers, who dedicated so much. The legacy they left behind is a torch that has been passed down through the years, illuminating our path towards a better future.
As we navigate the challenges facing the transgender community today, we are reminded of the battles fought by our earlier AIDS activists, who taught us how to fight and, most importantly, how to win. We have inherited a legacy that calls us to build a broad movement of support, to find and maintain our allies, and to reclaim the narrative surrounding our lives and experiences.
If you haven’t joined the struggle for trans rights already, consider this your invitation.
Let us stand united, just as AIDS activists taught us to do, and together, we can create a world where everyone has the right to thrive, and to love and be loved. Top of Form